New York

Inka Essenhigh

Deitch Projects

Inka Essenhigh came into public view a year or so ago with a set of paintings whose style seemed fully formed and almost preternaturally controlled. Her gleaming enamel surfaces, composed then and now of maybe four decorator-coordinated colors each, are generic landscapes in which are set a race of quasi-human, Bacon-goes-Disney creatures caught up in incomprehensible mechanisms of violence and pleasure, all delineated in a fluent graphic shorthand. The obscure clockwork of their actions was sometimes reminiscent of Duchamp, but might just as well have been described as an eroticized cross between Rube Goldberg and Raymond Roussel, in whose writings Michel Foucault found “not one symbol, not one proper hieroglyph in all this minuscule, measured agitation, prolix with details but sparing of adornments. Not a hidden meaning, but a secret form.” The observations might apply as well to Essenhigh’s work.

If these earlier paintings seemed to address a distinctly feminine condition, Essenhigh’s new canvases are bigger and a tad more complicated, but mostly they’re more butch. The twisted, distorted little figures that can already be described as her trademark may now be cowboys (End of the World, all works 1998), soldiers (Virgin and Volcano), or firemen (Large Fire). They are objects of infantile fantasy one and all whose uniforms are their bodies and vice versa—even their steroid-enhanced nudity or near nudity is a sort of livery. Maybe the most important thing about Essenhigh’s homunculi is that they’re headless. There’s no place in them for consciousness or self-consciousness, just twisted fleshly impulses. Reflection is the viewer’s business only—from an Olympian distance.

These are disaster-movie scenarios in which worlds collapse, burn, or crack up. The game is out of control, though it’s still a game. People, things, and the space they inhabit become essentially indistinguishable. In Cosmos, the man-thing that turns the spit is of one substance with the carcass roasting over the flame. That substance, of course, is color, which for Essenhigh (as for an otherwise very different painter like Mary Heilmann) seems to have a palpable, physical body. The relation of color to what it represents is nearly arbitrary: The “large fire” in the painting of that name is brown on beige, not red; cracking ice in End of the World is green. Only flesh is always “flesh” (as certain crayons in my pre-multicultural childhood were designated), and uniforms are always in the green/brown/khaki/blue range.

Although the larger scale of Essenhigh’s new works does expose some unexpected weaknesses in her draftsmanship, her elegant touch and coloristic élan carry the day. One almost wishes a mythologist-decorator this ambitious could essay an even bigger scale—I mean really big, maybe on the scale of the murals in a Renaissance palazzo. The depicted figures and objects would need be no larger, and perhaps even hardly more numerous than they are in her current paintings—only set amid grander, almost endless expanses of her uninflected sweet-and-sour color. Of course, that would relocate Olympian distance, putting the viewer into the picture.

Barry Schwabsky